Commission must prioritise access to contraception in development policy

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Access to contraception and family planning advice can bring public health and economic benefits. [DFID/Flickr]

Promoting womens’ and girls’ human rights is a fundamental aspect of the European Union and should be better reflected in our overseas aid policy through major investment in improving access to family planning, writes Heidi Hautala.

Heidi Hautala is a Finnish Green MEP in the Greens/European Free Alliance group. She is co-chair of the European Parliament Working Group on Reproductive Health, HIV/AIDS and Development (EPWG).

The choice of whether or when to have children is one that most European women can take for granted. But it was not always so. In Ireland, it was not until 1980 that contraception was legalised. Accession to the European Union seven years earlier was a clear, liberalising influence on the country, where religious doctrine had previously guided state policy. Since then the Irish fertility rate has fallen by over one third, while the number of working women, and along with it the Irish economy, have surged.

The EU should try to make a similar impact on countries in the developing world. Today, in low and middle income countries there are tens of millions of women and girls who wish to delay or prevent pregnancy but do not have access to modern contraception.

Benin is an example of one such country. Brigitte Dagba Kangni, a youth worker in the West African state, describes the situation faced by young people in concrete terms. “Not all public clinics are equipped to provide youth-friendly and respectful services. In many, when you ask for a contraceptive product it is not available.”

Women without the means to control their fertility are less likely to attend formal education and secure quality employment. They will not have the chance to fulfil their potential and become active contributors to sustainable economic growth in their countries. Unwanted pregnancy can also be a matter of life and death, particularly for young girls and women with underlying health problems.

On a global level, access to family planning helps stabilise population growth, one of the keys to a sustainable future. Population growth is also a factor in large migratory flows, and continues to put excessive strains on underfunded and overstretched local health systems.

In 2012, at the London Summit on Family Planning, governments from around the globe gathered to address this issue. The aim of the summit was to give 120 million people in the world’s 69 poorest countries access to modern contraception by 2020. Since then, 36 states or international institutions have made financial commitments to back up their political rhetoric. The European Commission was one of them, pledging a total of €36 million – only 1.57% of the total commitment.

The initiative that emerged from the London conference, Family Planning 2020 (FP2020), reaches its halfway point this month. Its midterm results are encouraging. Since 2012 an additional 24.4 million people in developing countries have the means and information to make decisions about their reproductive health.

This progress shows that the international community can make an enormous difference in increasing access to family planning when it acts with clear intent. Still, the figure is 10 million short of the halfway target set in 2012.

If we are to meet the 2020 goal, investment in and commitment to family planning needs to be ramped up. The European Commission should give equal priority to family planning as to access to water, food or education. In the context of the overseas development health spending, the Commission’s financial commitment to family planning is modest. To be a leader in giving 225 million women access to contraception, the Commission must increase its investment.

We don’t highlight enough that promoting gender equality and women’s and girls’ human rights in Europe have been a landmark achievement of the EU. By combining this with an effective overseas development policy, the EU can make a powerful impact on liberating and empowering women and girls worldwide. I am convinced that supporting access to family planning is the best way to achieve it.

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